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photo-eye Book Reviews: In the Face of Silence

In the Face of Silence, Photographs by Christophe Agou. 
Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
In the Face of Silence
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Christophe Agou In the Face of Silence
Photographs by Christophe Agou. Introduction by John Berger
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011. Hardbound. 144 pp., 77 color illustrations, 9-1/2x11-1/2".

Documenting the rural Forez region of France, Christophe Agou's touching book In The Face of Silence offers a glimpse into the lives and hardships of the several older family farmers struggling to survive off the land. At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss this work as another romantic photo-essay about rural life, but that would be a mistake. In addition to being born and raised in the region, which does not necessarily void this risk, Agou has clearly befriended his subjects and invested the time to explore and engage with them. Tender and heart-felt, Agou's photographs reveal a world of simple pleasures, but also marked isolation and adversity.

A traditional photojournalistic essay in the best sense, the work is poignant and nuanced. Agou has an excellent eye for detail and emotion, is heart-felt without being saccharine and honest without condescension. Characters like Jeannot, Babette and Raymond appear and reappear along with others throughout the book. As Agou writes, these are “modest and remarkable men and women” who live hard but rewarding lives largely cut off from the modern world. While the work illuminates his subjects and their lives, as Agou’s own statement reveals, it may more accurately reflect his own longing for escape and quietude.

In the Face of Silence, by Christophe Agou. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
Alongside the standard mix of portraits, landscapes and still-lives, the book contains numerous portraits of the animals that inhabit the farms. Like their human counterparts, the animal portraits are never overly sentimental. Instead, the animals are a silent, but comforting presence. Whether they are peeking over the top of the kitchen table, licking a sore foot or lolling in the hay, the animals offer a reminder that the people, while isolated, are never truly alone.

In the Face of Silence, by Christophe Agou. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
Accompanying the images is a statement by Agou about the project, and a brief prose piece by John Berger that fits the images wonderfully. In addition to these texts, the book also contains several hand-written letters to Agou by the various farmers in the book. Written in French, the texts are translated in the back of the book and not only offer a glimpse into the close bond Agou has with his subjects, but also reveal their difficulties and isolation.

In the Face of Silence, by Christophe Agou. Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2011.
Overall, the design of the book is clean and understated. Aside from the occasional full-bleed image, the images rest in center of the page and run off the outer edges. The end-pages also contain a collage of old and weatherworn family photos – presumably from the families shown inside. My only two reservations would be the title, In The Face of Silence, which feels a tad overwrought, and the relatively conservative design. Given the many beautiful photographs in the book, I understand the desire to give the photographs full attention, but feel the traditional nature of the project seems to warrant a slightly non-traditional presentation. These minor reservations aside, Agou has created an evocative and heart-rending portrait of a region and lifestyle often sentimentalized, but little understood.—ADAM BELL

ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department.